Professional Builder's 2008 Best Workplaces

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This year we chose six home builders that, in spite of the glum housing market, found a way to keep employees happy and ready to do whatever it takes to keep their companies going.

August 01, 2008
Sidebars:
Professional Builder 2008 Best Workplaces
Methodology
No. 1 (100 Employees or Fewer)
The Habits of Highly Successful Best Workplaces
No. 2 (100 Employees or Fewer)
No. 3 (100 Employees or Fewer)
No. 1 (More Than 100 Employees)
No. 2 (More Than 100 Employees)
No. 3 (More Than 100 employees)

No big surprise: entries for this year's Best Workplaces are down a bit amid layoffs; salary freezes and cuts; and the fact that some companies have simply gone out of business since last year's survey. But, happily, there are companies that have bucked the expectation of disgruntled employees ready to jump ship. This year's best workplaces have cultivated loyalty and a willingness to do double duty to help their companies ride out the current housing dip. These companies understand that a huge part of their success is their people, so they are willing to invest in them. And in these uncertain times, their staffs have not forgotten what has been done for them.

"I've got the best employees," says Doug Tripp, president of Tripp Trademark Homes, one of our finalists. "They are really looking to [find out] what else can they do to help us. Our receptionist has gone out into the field and is working as a hostess on her days off in our sales office. A couple of guys brought lawn mowers in to mow some of our inventory houses. The sales, construction and service people will vacuum the models on Friday afternoon instead of us paying a cleaning person, so that they look good during the weekend. I didn't tell them to do those things."

He adds that they were able to avoid some layoffs because staff were willing to take pay reductions for the benefit of the whole. "If people are willing to do that and not leave, that's loyalty," says Tripp.

Agreed. This year we are honoring six Best Workplaces: three top building companies with 100 or fewer employees, and three top building companies with more than 100 employees.

A common theme coming from those we spoke to at these companies is that the time and money spent to make employees feel heard, respected and motivated — be it through unique benefits, a good work/life balance, educational opportunities or fun get-togethers — is worth it. As belts tighten and situations seem dour, these companies have cultivated employees for such a time as this. They seem ready and willing to do what it takes to keep their companies going.

Putting things in perspective

Overall scores for survey participants were lower this year than last. But one thing that has stayed amazingly consistent is the percentage of respondents who strongly agree that they expect to be working for their current employer in the next two years. This year 71.2 percent agreed; last year just over 70 percent said so. (Note: There is a slight discrepancy in how total scores were evaluated last year and this year. Proportionally the scores were the same amongst last year's companies; the total scores this year were tallied differently.)

Scores were highest on the statements "I would recommend this company to others as a good place to work" at 75.4 percent — just a few points higher than last year's 72.4 percent — and "I would rate this company as a great place to work compared to other companies I know about" — 77.5 percent — up a bit from last year's 74.9 percent. (Hey, why even fill out the survey if you don't agree with that?)

Wallen Homes got several perfect scores. It scored 100 percent on all three questions relating to confidence in management's leadership ability ("I understand my company's business strategy and goals"; "I understand how my work fits into my company's business strategy"; "I have trust and confidence in the overall job being done by the senior leadership team of this company"). The average scores in this category were fairly good overall (66.1, 72 and 73.6 percent respectively). Traton Homes had 93 percent who strongly agreed that they understand how their work fits into their company's business strategy; Trendmaker had 92 percent who felt that way.

Wallen Homes scored 100 percent in two areas of customer service ("I would rate this company highly on satisfying its customers"; "I would rate this company highly on providing quality customer service"). Wallen also scored 100 percent three times out of a possible four in the category of workplace culture and environment on questions concerning work/life balance; a climate of mutual respect among employees of different backgrounds; and encouraging teamwork and collaboration. Overall average scores on work/life balance were 59 percent; mutual respect, 71 percent and teamwork/collaboration, 73.5 percent. Last year the overall scores were, 53.3, 62 (almost a 10 percent increase this year!) and 70.3 percent, respectively, bucking the trend of lower scores this year. But it's not surprising that pleasing customers is top of mind in this current sales environment.

Wallen was bested only by Trendmaker on the question, "My company employs strong, ethical principles in its business practice" — the fourth question under the category of workplace culture. Wallen scored 89 percent versus Trendmaker's 93 percent. The overall average score was 75.6 percent.

Tripp Trademark scored high in two areas of corporate and social responsibility. Ninety-three percent strongly agreed, "My company actively supports community outreach, public service and charitable work," which was the highest score this year on that particularly question; and 93 percent also strongly agreed that, "My company contributes to the local building industry, economy and corporate community," a score second only to Wallen's 100 percent. The overall average was 66 percent and 69 percent respectively. The overall average score this year on "My company practices environmentally responsibility in its operations" was 57.1 percent compared to 62.8 last year. Wallen and Trendmaker scored far above average at 89 and 80 percent, respectively, on this question.

As was the case last year, some of the lowest scores overall were in the area of recruitment and retention, presumably for the same reasons — more folks are being let go than recruited or retained. A mere 42.6 percent strongly agree that they are being groomed for a position of increased responsibility, or, if managers, are grooming at least one staff member for such a position. Last year the number was 49.57. Only 43 percent say open positions are being filled in a timely manner, fairly even with last year's 43.9 percent. What's more likely is that these positions are being left open indefinitely or eliminated completely.

Under the category of compensation and benefits, only 41.7 percent strongly agreed that their salary is competitive with similar positions in other companies, compared to a similar 43.7 percent last year. And in terms of professional development, education and training, only 42.2 percent strongly agree that their company's mentoring program has helped them develop important skills, compared with 47.10 percent last year. A low 46.6 percent of all respondents strongly believe the better their performance, the better their pay will be. The number is down from 51.7 percent last year.

 

Professional Builder 2008 Best Workplaces

Top 3 (100 Employees or Fewer)

  1. Wallen Homes, Rio Rancho, N.M.
  2. Tripp Trademark Homes, Lutz, Fla.
  3. Traton Homes, Marietta, Ga.

Top 3 (More Than 100 Employees)

  1. Trendmaker Homes, Houston
  2. Capital Pacific Homes, Newport Beach, Calif.
  3. Holiday Builders, Melbourne, Fla.

Methodology

Professional Builder solicited responses to a 32-question online survey about how people feel about the home building company for which they work. We received almost 1,000 individual responses representing 63 separately identified companies.

Aside from giving a general description of their title (support staff/administrative, middle manager, senior manager, field supervisor or owner) and naming their company, respondents remained anonymous. Survey questions covered compensation and benefits; professional development, education and training; recruitment and retention; job satisfaction; workplace culture and environment; social and corporate responsibility; customer service; and leadership ability of management.

We selected the top three companies in two categories — companies with 100 employees or fewer and companies with more than 100 employees — that scored highest overall on the employee survey result, which is to say, those with the most respondents who strongly agreed with the survey statements reflecting their view of their employer. Only companies with nine or more respondents representing 20 percent or more of employees were considered.


 

No. 1 (100 Employees or Fewer)

WALLEN HOMES, RIO RANCHO, N.M.

Jenice Montoya, 
President and General Manager 
wallenbuilders.com

Employees: 28
2007 Revenue: $58 million
2007 units closed: 188

Wallen Homes is a semi-custom builder primarily targeting move-up buyers. It has a library of about 45 floor plans but allows customers to make changes as significant as moving walls and adding patios.

"We'll actually let a customer go in and really customize that home," says President and General Manager Jenice Montoya. "So that gives us a little bit of a different approach."

Wallen Builders was originally founded as a framing company by Garry Wallen in 1985. In the late 1990s, a company called Amrep Southwest decided to stop building homes in Rio Rancho and asked Wallen to build out its remaining home contracts. Thus Wallen Builders became a home builder. Wallen remained owner of the company until he sold it to investors in April and retired in May 2007. The name changed to Wallen Homes to better reflect its position as a home builder.

Wallen Homes is a National Housing Quality Certified Builder.

"If you're familiar with NHQ certification, you know that it's much more than just building a good home," Montoya says. "While that's certainly a part of it, the underlying factor is just being a good company, being a good business partner, not only to our trade partners but to our employees as well."


 

The Habits of Highly Successful Best Workplaces

Time Off

Both Tripp Trademark and Wallen Homes traditionally close down their offices for at least a week during the Christmas holiday. Employees are paid for this time off.

“We really give people an opportunity to connect with family and make that a special time for them,” says Wallen’s Jenice Montoya.

“We start working on our projections in August and make sure that we have our homes done that are going to be delivered by the end of the year the first or second week of December so we’re not in a rush,” says Tripp Trademark’s Doug Tripp.

Almost all six companies report a formal or informal flextime policy.

“Your daughter or son has an awards thing at school and it’s at 2 p.m. in the afternoon,” says Doug Tripp of Tripp Trademark. “You need to go to that. … We don’t charge time off against that kind of stuff. We just ask that you don’t abuse it and communicate with us about it.”

“We work nine-hour days at our corporate office,” says Capital Pacific’s Matt Kern. “We take a half day on Friday.” 

Fringe Bennies

Trendmaker allows employees to earn a percentage of gross profit contributions. They can check their accumulated totals monthly; bonuses are paid quarterly.

“We send out a company-wide e-mail that says the GPC is posted,” says Trendmaker’s Holder. “Everyone wants to see. It has created some enthusiasm inside of our group to really try to improve financial performance.”

Traton Homes built a gym in its basement for employee use. Tripp Trademark offers free gym membership. “Our office happens to be five feet from a World Gym,” says Tripp. “So we pay for a gym membership for them. People who had never done any kind of physical activity now go over there.”

Traton tries to schedule quarterly outings, including the annual holiday party. Tripp Trademark has taken its employees on an annual trip in the past — once to Cozumel. “It’s a way to get away, have fun together. We bring the spouses and significant others into the company culture,” says Tripp. But he says they may not be able to pull one off this year in light of recent layoffs. 

Due Recognition

All six Best Workplaces have an employee awards and recognition system. For example, Trendmaker’s Above and Beyond awards program, through parent company Weyerhaeuser, recognizes employees who go beyond their regular duties. Beginning in 2008, a financial reward attached to that, Holder says, that will range from $1,000 to $5,000.

Knowledge is Power

Both Capital Pacific and Holiday Builders offer an internal “university” program to address the training and professional development needs of employees. CPH staff can take hundreds of online courses on everything from how to frame a house, speak Spanish or be a better manager. There’s a degree of cross-training that allows employees from one discipline to learn what those from other disciplines do. Holiday Builders also offers courses online through its I-Learn program.

Doing Good Together

Home builders are typically a charitable bunch — Habitat for Humanity, Toys for Tots and Project Playhouse were among those mentioned. Holiday Builders is involved with Homes for our Troops and is taking the lead in building a house for a soldier who came back from the war and now has special needs.

 

In June, several employees took part in Relay for Life to raise money for cancer research. Two employees have been recently diagnosed with the disease. “It hit our company pretty hard,” says Montoya. “We decided to do that this summer [to] keep up awareness and those two individuals and their families [in mind] and do our part to help.”

Handling Layoffs

Like many builder companies, Professional Builder’s Best Workplaces have had its share of staff reductions, but they’ve tried to deal as fairly with the individuals affected as possible.

“We gave two months severance pay to the two guys we laid off,” says Tripp. “One of them had only been here eight months. I got a lot of criticism from my Builder 20 group for that one. But I felt terrible [letting them go].”

Wallen’s HR department have helped laid off employees with resumes, interview techniques and whatever assistance they need in getting their next position.
One of our Best Workplace companies that didn’t want to be named in this regard gave holiday bonuses to a good number of employees they had to let go earlier in the year. 


No. 2 (100 Employees or Fewer)

TRIPP TRADEMARK HOMES, LUTZ, FLA.

Douglas Tripp, Founder/President 
www.tripptrademarkhomes.com

Employees: 22
2007 Revenue: $19 million
2007 units closed: 89

Tripp Trademark Homes is a family-owned company founded by Doug Tripp in 2000. He started the company after 20 years in the home-building business, including 13 years as an executive for two of the nation's largest home builders. The company has closed more than 900 homes since then. Tripp Trademark builds single-family homes, townhomes and its popular villa product in several of Tampa Bay's premier communities.

Tripp Trademark describes itself as a small company with a big heart. Part of the company's mission is to build up the communities in which its homes are located.

"We've encouraged all our employees to become involved with non-profits and organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Big Brother/Big Sister and the American Heart Association," says Tripp. "We give them time off from work to participate if they care to. We typically give financially [to these organizations]."

Tripp says he appreciates the recognition as a Best Workplace, but he think he should be recognized for having the best employees. "I'm very fortunate and blessed to have them," he says. "I try to stay out of their way and let them do their job. I'm there for any guidance they'd like."


No. 3 (100 Employees or Fewer)

TRATON HOMES, MARIETTA, GA.

Bill and Milburn Poston, Founders
www.tratonhomes.com

Employees: 68
2007 Revenue: $95 million
2007 units closed: 225

Traton Homes is a third-generation family-owned business. Brothers Bill and Milburn Poston founded Traton Homes in 1971. Since then, Traton has built more than 6,000 homes in more than 50 communities. Dale Bercher is chief operating officer of Traton Homes; William C. (Clif) Poston Jr. is the executive vice president; and Chris Poston is senior vice president. Traton is No. 203 on Professional Builder's 2008 Giant 400 list.

"Our office has a homey kind of feeling," says Cliff Poston. "It's a comfortable, unassuming. ... Everybody has to dress and act professionally, but we want the feeling to be more like you're at home with your family."

And like a comfortable home, the office has a recreational space: a "retreat" on the third floor.

"There's a large bar up there, a big screen TV — it's like being in a lodge," says Bercher. "We use it periodically. We might have an after work get together, a company meeting or something like that. We can have a couple of cocktails and enjoy each other's company."


No. 1 (More Than 100 Employees)

TRENDMAKER HOMES, HOUSTON

Will Holder, President
www.trendmakerhomes.com

Employees: 164
2007 Revenue: $316.2 million
2007 units closed: 796

Trendmaker Homes has been in Houston since 1971 and has built a niche as a builder of luxury production homes that incorporate "smart differences"— added features that add comfort and convenience but are not considered upgrades.

The company is part of WRECO, the real-estate subsidiary of Weyerhaeuser. One of the benefits of being a Weyerhaeuser company is that Trendmaker is one of a few home builders that offers employees a pension plan. The company also pays for each employee's medical and dental insurance — and there is a cost to cover other family members.

"We have a very family-friendly environment," says Will Holder, president of Trendmaker Homes. "I've been here 15 years, and I've had a lot of challenges in my life and with my kids — diabetes and other challenges. The company is very accommodating to people's special needs. We are focused on retaining our employees for their career, and accommodating people through periods of their lives is probably the best way to do that."
 


No. 2 (More Than 100 Employees)

CAPITAL PACIFIC HOMES, NEWPORT, CALIF.

Hadi Makarechian, Chairman/CEO/President
 www.capitalpacifichomes.com

Employees: 260
2007 Revenue: $372.6 million
2007 units closed: 1,045

Capital Pacific Homes is a wholly owned subsidiary of Capital Pacific Holding (No. 66 this year on Professional Builder's Giant 400 list) and is among the nation's largest regional home builders with operations in Arizona, California, Colorado and Texas. Its Southern California Division earned National Housing Quality Certification earlier this year.

Founder Hadi Makarechian returned to his native Iran after graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo to join his family's development and construction company that, at the time, was the country's largest developer. Returning to the States in the late '70s, Makarechian established his own real-estate development business through various corporate entities.

Matt Kern joined CPH as corporate controller in 2002 and assumed his current position as chief financial officer in 2005. With the layoffs the company has had, Kern says remaining employees understand their importance.

"Our employees feel they are contributing something," he says. "The organization wouldn't be where it is today without their individual efforts. ... We can't do this without [them], our key people."
 


No. 3 (More Than 100 employees)

HOLIDAY BUILDERS, MELBOURNE, FLA.

Kim Shelpman, President
www.holidaybuilders.com

Employees: 249
2007 Revenue: $235.6 million
2007 units closed: 1,152

Holiday Builders was founded in 1983 with the mission to build affordable homes in Florida for the first-time home buyer. In its first year, the company overachieved on its business plan, selling 76 homes compared with the 12 it planned. Today, it has built more than 30,000 single-family homes in 65 communities throughout Florida, Texas, Alabama and South Carolina. Holiday is No. 88 on Professional Builder's 2008 Giant 400 list.

Holiday established its Employee Stock Ownership Program in 1996 and became 100 percent employee-owned in 1999, making it the largest employee-owned home builder in the nation. President Kim Shelpman says being an ESOP is an important benefit to employees. "They are certainly a piece of the pie. They have that daily accountability factor."

The company is among the top 20 privately owned companies in the state of Florida and one of only a handful of companies to be employee-owned for more than 10 years.

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